When my son came home from school the other day, he was not wearing the shirt that he had on when he left for school that morning. He was wearing only his undershirt.
When we opened his backpack, we discovered why.
Kai’s shirt was at the bottom of his backpack. When we took it out, we saw that the ends of both sleeves were no longer attached to the shirt. Kai had chewed them off.
We later found out from the staff at school that Kai had gotten upset when he was told that he had to finish an assignment that he did not complete earlier in the day. Although it does not happen every time, all too often when Kai gets upset, his anger escalates, resulting in unsafe behavior.
He goes to a therapeutic school, so the staff is trained to deal with these types of behaviors. Sometimes they are able to calm the child quickly. But in some cases it takes longer. When that happens, they ensure that the child does not harm himself or others.
But saving a shirt is not a priority.
Sensory needs among children with autism
Many children with autism have sensory issues that cause them to have to gnaw on something. In Kai’s case, we often give him sugarless gum to satisfy these sensory needs. In the past, we’ve tried ‘chewies’ – items specially made for kids with autism that provide them something to chew on. Among these were special bracelets that he could wear and chew on when necessary.
We’ve found that these chewables can help, but they are easily lost and never seem to be around when we need them the most. What's worse, when Kai is really angry, he will throw them away and not use them.
Instead, he prefers to chew on his shirts.
And this shirt with the chewed off sleeves is just the latest in a long line of ruined clothes.
Finding no harmony at the holiday concert
Last month, we went to the holiday concert at Kai’s school. We caught a glimpse of him before it began, and he was in good spirits.
The concert started and other kids came out to perform their numbers. Kai was in another area along with other kids who were waiting until it was their turn to perform.
When it was time for his group, he didn’t come out with them. We knew that something was wrong. We watched the entire concert, wondering if Kai still might come out. He never did.
Afterward, we found him sitting in a room while his school therapist watched him. Though he was now calm, it was very evident that he must have created quite a ruckus.
His face was red. He still had tears in his eyes.
And he was shirtless, having completely tattered the one he was wearing.
His therapist explained that Kai wanted to go first when the kids were lining up. He couldn’t accept that he would have to wait his turn.
I rubbed his back and comforted him, while also talking to him about how hard it is to wait, but that it is something he needs to learn how to do.
The concert was memorable, but it wasn’t for any of the songs we heard. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of seeing him sitting there shirtless, looking so vulnerable.
* * * * *
One of my favorite photos from the past year is a picture of Kai smiling that jubilant smile of his. He looks very happy. But if you look down at his shirt, you can see the hole he had chewed into it earlier that same day.
It is the perfect illustration of the dichotomy we face each day with our son.
For some, torn clothes are a fashion statement. For us, it is a reminder of the challenges we face. Kai has made a lot of progress, but we still have a ways to go.